Though New York City’s academic achievement gains over the past eight
years remain subject to some dispute, on Joel Klein’s watch the
nation’s largest city also ended up among its most impressive when
gauged by the kinds of structural and policy changes that comprise
intelligent, promising modern-day school reforms. (New Orleans and the
District of Columbia are the only real rivals for that title. For more
on that, check out Fordham’s recent study on reform-friendly cities.)
Klein won his spurs not only as perhaps the most
creative/persistent/productive reformer among America’s big city
superintendents—his only rivals would be Paul Vallas and Michelle Rhee,
probably followed by Arne Duncan while in Chicago—but also as a force to
be reckoned with at the national level. Smart, tireless, shrewd, and
well-connected, he seemed to be involved with everything nearly
everywhere. He imported programs, ideas, and people to New York. He
exported “proof points,” ideas, writings, and more. He teamed up with
strong figures across the spectrum from Jeb Bush to (aaargh) Al
Joel made a couple of dubious initial personnel choices and got off
to a slow start on the curriculum front, but he learned fast, generally
hired well, and never rested on yesterday’s accomplishment when
tomorrow’s challenge loomed. Despite ceaseless pushback from the
country’s most powerful teacher union, led by the smart/tireless/shrewd
Randi Weingarten, he made a series of profound structural changes in the
system, along the way harnessing the powers of data, of choice, of
decentralization, of technology, and much more. Of course, it helped
that (until the last year or so) he had pots of public and private money
to spend. It helped that he kept the job for eight years. It helped
that he had the steadfast backing of a formidable mayor. But much of
what looks promising today in New York City’s public-education system is
owing to his own personal qualities.
Cathie Black has big shoes to fill and we wish her well. We wish Joel
well, too, as he goes to work with another formidable figure. (Rupert
Murdoch is cut from very different cloth than Michael Bloomberg.) And we
thank him for demonstrating that even the biggest job in American urban
education isn’t too big to tackle and, much of the time, prevail.
This piece originally appeared (in a slightly different form) on Fordham’s Flypaper blog.
“New York Schools Chancellor Ends 8-Year Run,” by Sharon Otterman, New York Times, November 9, 2010.
“Joel Klein’s bumpy learning curve on the path to radical change,” by Phillissa Cramer and Elizabeth Green, Gotham Schools, November 10, 2010.
“Black Isn’t Blank Slate,” by Barbara Martinez, Wall Street Journal, November 11, 2010.